Even Moore's law as hit a limit. Aivars Lode avantce
Moore’s Law Shows Its Age
50-year-old axiom hits limits amid the many new steps needed to turn silicon wafers into the latest computer chips.
April 17, 2015 11:00 a.m. ET
Silicon Valley pioneer Gordon Moore laid out a bold theorem 50 years ago. Engineers would cram twice as many transistors on tiny squares of silicon every year or so, producing more and more power in ever-smaller machines.
His extrapolation, known as Moore’s Law, has been one of the most enduring precepts of the technology industry, foretelling the revolutionary emergence of personal computers, mobile phones, Web servers and network routers. Each generation of chips usually brought more performance at a lower cost.
But Moore’s Law is hitting some painful limits.
The design and testing of a chip with the latest technology now costs $132 million, up 9% from the previous top-of-the-line chip, estimates International Business Strategies Inc., a consulting firm in Los Gatos, Calif. A decade ago, designing such an advanced chip cost just $16 million. Meanwhile, some companies for the first time are unable to reduce the cost of each tiny transistor.
The changes are triggered partly by the many new processing steps needed to turn silicon wafers into the latest computer chips. Circuitry for the latest chips has a width of 14 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, which enables manufacturers to squeeze hundreds of millions more transistors on a chip than they could in the past. But designing products that use so many more components takes lots of time and money.
While companies say they likely can keep shrinking the size of silicon chips for another decade or so, that work is bringing diminishing financial returns. Some chip designers already are limiting their use of the newest technology to high-end products where performance is more important than cost.
“We are being very careful,” said Henry Samueli, co-founder, chairman and chief technology officer at Broadcom Corp., which is based in Irvine, Calif., and makes chips for about half the world’s tablets and smartphones. “The price of these chips is going up dramatically.”
Micron Technology Inc. Chief Executive Mark Durcan adds: “There will be smaller and smaller pieces of the market that will pay for the improvement.” Micron, of Boise, Idaho, makes flash memory chips, which are used in smartphones, digital cameras and tablets to store photos.
Mr. Moore was director of the research and development laboratories at Fairchild Semiconductor, a unit of Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. and seminal Silicon Valley startup, when Electronics magazine published his predictions on April 19, 1965 under the headline: “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits.”
He extrapolated that the number of components on a single silicon chip would double every year from about 60 to as many as 65,000 by 1975. In 1975, he adjusted the formula to predict a doubling every two years.
Fairchild sold its first transistors for $150 each, but prices for the company and its rivals dropped year after year in the wake of Mr. Moore’s projection.
Semiconductor giant Intel Corp.’s Core i5 microprocessors include 1.3 billion transistors, each costing $0.00000014, or a penny per 70,000 transistors, according to the Santa Clara, Calif., company.
Mr. Moore, now 86 years old, didn’t use the words “Moore’s Law” in his article, but they took hold as an axiom in Silicon Valley and as general shorthand for just about any kind of progress, technological or otherwise.
“I googled ‘Moore’s Law’ and I googled ‘Murphy’s Law’ and ‘Moore’ beats ‘Murphy’ by at least two to one,” he said in a January interview by Intel.
Mr. Moore co-founded Intel three years after his 1965 prediction and retired as the company’s chairman in 1997. He now lives in Hawaii. Mr. Moore couldn’t be reached, and Intel said he wasn’t available to comment.
At first, Moore’s Law was largely a yardstick for chip engineers. It gradually became a competitive imperative, spurring companies to relentlessly innovate.
Until the mid-2000s, Moore’s Law helped chip makers boost a key aspect of computing performance known as operating frequency, or clock speed. But higher clock speeds generated too much heat and consumed too much power as the market shifted to portable computing devices.
That led to a strategic shift by Intel and other chip makers, which are using tricks like changing the shape of transistors to make them switch faster and use less energy.
But the industry’s costs keep rising, with new chip-fabrication plants costing as much as $10 billion. Cost pressures led International Business Machines Corp.last year to pay $1.5 billion to another company to take over its semiconductor operations.
Companies that can afford to keep pushing Moore’s Law are finding it increasingly hard to keep up the pace. Intel’s introduction of 14-nanometer technology was two quarters late because of delays in reducing manufacturing defects.
Intel said it is confident that the process will result in greater savings per transistor than past advances. “It was a little bit harder but has got us to a better place in the end,” said Mark Bohr, a senior Intel fellow who helps lead development of production processes.
More transistors provide the biggest benefits when tasks can be broken up and tackled by many processor cores at once. Nvidia Corp. chips render ultrarealistic images on computer screens by simultaneously painting colors on thousands of pixels.
Some big computer users are going beyond such chips to try other new designs, since smaller transistors alone aren’t boosting computing speeds enough.
“Moore’s Law is not having the same effect on the rate of gains we are seeing,” said Gordon MacKean, a senior director of Google Inc.’s hardware platforms team.
Some makers of data-storage chips are taking more dramatic steps. Producers of chips called NAND flash memory used in smartphones and an increasing number of computers have decided to stop shrinking transistors, worried that smaller circuitry won’t store data reliably.
Instead, they plan to stack circuits in three dimensions—32 or 48 layers per chip—rather than on a flat square of silicon to keep boosting the capacity of their devices.
Micron and Intel expect to produce so-called 3-D NAND chips that initially store as much as 384 gigabits of data, or three times more than conventional memory chips.
Later this year, Intel expects to deliver a chip for specialized applications with eight billion transistors—or 133 million times more than chips than when Mr. Moore made his projection.